Part 1 in a Series: Women and Sanitation in India
NEW DELHI, INDIA – Anita Bai Narre, 23, of Betul district of Madhya Pradesh, a state in central India, is an unusual hero. The petite tribal woman made national headlines in 2011 when she refused to live with her husband after they married because there was no toilet in his house.
Narre says that the thought of relieving herself in the open terrified her. It also turned the newly married woman into a kind of rebel India had never seen before.
The young woman says that she marched back to her parents’ house barely three days after her marriage, boldly asking her husband to come and fetch her only after he had a toilet. This was enough to enlighten her husband and pass the message to the entire village that toilets are a must for women.
Soon, a group of villagers in support of Narre approached the village council, known locally as a panchayat, which, in turn, provided them with the required funds to build toilets. Thanks to Narre’s rebellious act, there will soon be a toilet for each family in her village.
Narre, who has since returned to her husband’s home, is now a brand ambassador for the government’s nationwide cleanliness drive. She has met a galaxy of celebrities and prominent people, including Pratibha Patil, the former president of India, who praised her courage.
Sulabh International Social Service Organization, an Indian charity organization working to improve sanitation, honored Narre earlier this year with 500,000 rupees ($9,000) for increasing awareness about sanitation and hygiene across the country.
“I am happy,” Narre told reporters and governmental officials gathered at the award ceremony.
Away from the glare of the media, hundreds of women like Narre in India today are contributing to this sanitation revolution. Advocates point out that sanitation is a safety, health and social justice issue. Successful villages credit their holistic strategies to achieve total sanitation: toilets, clean drinking water and drainage systems. Others recommend linking sanitation to women’s rights.
Jairam Ramesh, India’s minister of drinking water and sanitation and of rural development, recently presented to Parliament that 60 percent of the total population in India doesn’t have access to a toilet. When it comes to women, the percentage increases to more than 70.
Only 25,000 of India’s 600,000 villages are officially “clean,” according to the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. This means achieving total sanitation, which has three components: no open defecation, safe drinking water for every household and a drainage system to prevent stagnant water.
Like Narre, women across India have united to achieve total sanitation.
Achamma Guravaiah and Shantamma Narsaiah, two women in their early 50s, say they were tired of men expecting them to defecate in the open. So five years ago, these women demanded a toilet for each family in their village of Konaigudem in southern India.
“Nobody in our village is really too poor to build a toilet, yet they were not willing